This month’s meeting was full of good advice, and as I was taking notes I wasn’t sure what of that multitude I’d choose for this post. Lucky for me, one bit of advice was given to two different stories, and that was: Don’t spoil the surprise.
For one of these stories, the problem lay in the fact the writer knew the twist at the end of the short story would reveal the ‘good guy’ protagonist had actually done everything to suit their own greedy purposes. Because the writer knew the protagonist was actually a ‘bad guy’ they took less effort to disguise this fact through the story, resulting several readers disliking the character and making the surprise ultimately less satisfying.
In the second story’s case it was a revised re-submission of the first few chapters of a novel. While overall the newer version was more intriguing and better written, in the earlier version there were a group of trapped people, looking for a way to return to their old lives. In the re-write the first chapter made it immediately obvious to the reader that there was actually no real hope for those trapped individuals(and I don’t mean in a simple ‘this is a big obstacle but we all know this plucky bunch will overcome it in the end’ way, but an actual, ‘no there is absolutely no hope’ way). So then when the next chapter shifted to those trapped people we already knew what the characters did not yet: that there was no light at the end of their tunnel.
For the second story you want the surprise better hidden because this way the reader has hope alongside the character’s hope. The chance may be small, but in many stories small is all you need for a happily ever after. This means that when the truth is revealed, and they learn there truly is no rescue or escape the reader also feels the shock and devastation right alongside the characters. At the same instant as the characters they realise that the light at the end of the tunnel is a freight train coming their way.
In the case of the first story, this is the author accidentally telegraphing their intention. Now there’s nothing wrong with a small hint or two to let the reader know all might not be as it seems, but too much can make a story obvious, or in this case cause some inconsistencies which bother readers. A better false motivation to work as a mask is one way to fix the problem. Being masterfully deceitful with your reader to better hide your unreliable narrator is the best way to surprise them.
Excellent surprises and twists are one of the best ways to hook a reader, so you don’t want to mess them up.
Now get writing, and surprise me!